Early last Saturday morning, a quartet of Texans died at a DuPont plant on Strang Rd. in the coastal berg of La Porte, 20 miles outside of Houston. The toll included two brothers, a 40-year employee and a new hire of just eight months duration. They died, as is often the case in the Lone Brain Cell state, needlessly. It took the company 12 hours before acknowledging the deaths. It should surprise no one that the weekend fatalities were a consequence of a chemical leak. An additional worker was hospitalized as a precaution, but seems OK.
In a two-hour period from 4-6 AM, enough of the release escaped containment to kill the employees who were responding to the leaked chemical, methyl mercaptan, also known as methanethiol (CH4S). In La Porte, it was used as feedstock in the insecticide and fungicide manufacturing process. The odor stretched for 40 miles.
Our right-wing brothers and sisters who go fiddlesticks berserk over the possible presence of the dreaded Ebola, but most likely live in close proximity or downwind of a chemical that makes the largely manufactured (1 death in the U.S.?) Ebola threat look like a hangnail. First, because the Ebola threat is 99% political: The “millions of Americans will die; it’s all Obama’s fault!” disappeared from the front pages November 5th). Secondly, this CH4S stuff is everywhere. In many parts of the U.S. it’s in your natural gas, but, not to worry, you’ll be dead of bunches of other chemicals long before the methyl mercaptan hits you.
Here’s the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Centers (TSDRC) scoop on methyl mercaptan. First of all your last breathe will be stale with the smell of “rotten garbage” because that’s the odor emitted from this chemical gas. You’ve got a harmless smidgeon of this gas in your tissues, blood and brain. It’s also, YUK, in animal feces.
There’s a naturally occurring quantity in some nuts and Beaufort cheese. Less natural is its use in wood-pulp mills, sewage treatment plants, the manufacturer of jet fuel and poultry feed. Methyl mercaptan has not been found in drinking water. It has been approved for use as a food additive, but because of its unpleasant smell, very little can actually be added to food. You could be exposed to small amounts of methyl mercaptan by eating foods that contain it.
However, we have no information on the levels of methyl mercaptan in food. How comforting. The scary part is that little to nothing is known about methyl mercaptan levels in many areas. Nonetheless, unless you discharge, spill or release more than 100 pounds of the gas, you don’t even have to report it to the Environmental Protection Agency. This being the case even though the feds admit to not knowing how much it takes to kill a human being.
Of great comfort to the owners and stockholders of the plant, DuPont, is secure in the knowledge that the state of Texas environmental officialdom has their back. The major consequences will be borne by the innocent dead employees and their survivors. The company will skate with what these indifferent corporate monsters always escape with, a fine.
Sometimes these fines are substantial, but as they say, who can put a price on a human life? Well, in its way, Texas, and some federal agencies, severely restricted by Republican legislation, put a price on human life and that amounts to very little. Hopefully, trial attorneys will take these corporate louts to court and drain them for millions. That’s why the biggie corporations are always getting their Republican legislative toadies to renounce trial attorneys and call for “tort or court reform.” Reform, as in minimal compensation and miserly punitive awards for deaths and horrific life-altering injuries and pollution-friendly judges, recipients of huge special interest campaign contributions.
The first company reaction is always an expression of deep sympathy for those who have died as a result of accidents of inhalations, explosions and collective chemical insults over the years. The familiar and predictable bromides of “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the employees” and the mandatory “We know something wrong happened today and we are going to do the proper investigation to make sure it doesn’t happen again” always follow these catastrophic events.
Yeah, yeah. My sense is, beating sure lawsuits is where DuPont “thoughts and prayers” really reside while “doing the proper investigation” means making sure DuPont avoids all liability. In addition to manipulating the judicial system, after the initial shocked reaction blows over and the public returns to their football and the Kardashians, numerous backroom moves are made to guarantee that no manufacturer or business of any major proportion ever pays the full price for their roles as killers.
Yes, I realize that chemicals and other dangerous substances are an inevitable part of being a corporate-controlled country, and accidents will happen. And, I guess I have to accept that, or most of my creature comforts and occasional luxuries will disappear.
But I also have to accept that far fewer people need to perish to serve an oligarchy of enormous power, money and assets. This issue of environmental and pollution safety goes to the very core of the Koch brothers role in using huge, limitless, dark money, now into the SuperPac realm, to influence self-serving policy decisions of pliable elected and appointed officials and judges. Remember, Koch Industries is the second largest privately owned company in the country and relies on very weak environmental regulations to add untold wealth to their bottom line.
When the 2014 North Carolina and Kentucky Senate races settle in at expenditures of around $100 million each, society has lost control of its political self. Full public financing of elections and attacking Citizens United should be ballot issues in every state in 2016. The people must do what their legislators won’t do.
We know policy is influenced because you can knock off 15 people and injure hundreds of others (226 is the most accepted number) and receive little more than a slap on the wrist, as in a $118,000 fine from OSHA on 24 different counts of West Fertilizer wrongdoing, among other benign punishments. Jail for owner Donald Adair? Meaningful action from the state legislature? ROTFLMAO!!!
The Dallas Morning News had a wonderful special section on the West Fertilizer Company explosion in the small community of West, Texas back in April of 2013. Visit these pages and read accounts of the tragic event, the immediate aftermath and the series of foul-ups and questionable activities by Texas officials that kept a deadly secret from a vulnerable local population until it was too late.
I’m reminded once more of how much I miss Molly Ivins.
Lesson learned: Keep voting Republican and my colleagues and I will be writing dozens of stories that are mirror images of this one.